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[459] The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard

” Love would be concealed, like unworthiness, from them, from him. When she had coveted his standards, she had naively imagined them compatible with her passion. It was another self-revelation—that she should have assumed virtue could be had so quickly, and by such an easy access as love. It was hard to tell, in all this, where her innocence left off and guilt began. ” (Ch.33, p.285)

The Transit of Venus follows the lives of Caroline and Grace Bell, two orphan sisters who are eager to begin their lives in a new land, after a journey from England to Australia. Maybe owing to the maturing effect of their early tragedy, they retreat to a rather dispassionate, and stale perspective in life. They both possess an innate dignity that puzzles and attracts the staid English society. Self-possessed for their meager situation, Caro works at a bookstore while studying for a government examination. Grace works at the complaints department at Harrods. 

The truly terrible things are those one cannot alter, to which one is indefinitely committed. (Ch.19, p.154)

Grace’s life is rather quiet. She’s married to an unremarkable husband whose later rise in the civil ladder proves him to be a fool. Her safe world is easily shattered by her liaison with a young doctor, who attends to her son. He is what “makes an honest woman of her” and engages her in real conversations. Caro’s world is one of passion and pain. Early on she shuns the affection of Edmund Tice, whose lifelong love for her becomes the moral backbone of the story. His tragic end also accentuates this pure love between the two, although they never consummate it. Caro falls inexplicably in love with the charismatic but vain Paul Ivory. Their affair continues after Paul marries the rich Tertia.

Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity. (Ch.13, p.98)

So Caroline and Ted get married respectively, and the novel thus takes a diversion to explore the dalliances with secondary characters. Though all these subplots are tenuously attached, the undercurrent of what Caroline and Edmund established continues to resonate throughout the novel. Shirley Hazzard is bent to please, with language so poetic and lush. Her style is at once brilliant and overstuffed, requiring discipline not to skip sentences. In fact, she is too clever by far and seems always trying to impress with this style. I appreciate literary fiction, but the writer’s presence should not intrude on my appreciation of the narrative and the mood. There are sections that feel inserted and almost self-contained.

These damnations were distinctly given as adultery, fornication, lasciviousness, and the like, all of which she had practised. It was a curious, almost idle thought that she was so great a sinner. Perdition weighed as nothing beside the laceration of departed love. (Ch.22, p.175)

The Transit of Venus leaves me with the impression that all a person needs is a good partner of the opposite sex to be happy. For it is revealed toward the end that a gay son’s prospect is doomed. But throughout the entire story Hazzard does not cling on to any notion of hope: Her characters are not worthy of empathy, some are plain nasty and pretentious, others are miserable before rescue. The exaggerated proportions to which she portrays them might very well satirize the absurdities of modern life. While the novel lives up to what befits a literary fiction in the value and power of language, the story needs desperately to be trimmed to its honest bones. Her suffocating use of excessive language makes it difficult to understand the actual story at times.

337 pp. Penguin Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


4 Responses

  1. I don’t like when an author uses this excessive language. I always feel as though they are trying to impress when really in most cases a simpler sentence would suffice.

    • She is quite difficult to read. At times I feel like I was breathing in warm honey. The prose is rich and lush, heavy on description.

  2. […] [459] The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard […]

  3. I’m reading this now and am struggling with her language – your description of ‘suffocating’ is spot-on. I fear it’s one of those literary books which you read and then wonder what it was about.

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